Makuahine (Mother)

In memory of my mother, Kanoelani Abbiegail McMillen OʻConnor
Kanoelani O’Connor (middle) demonstrating how to eat poi.

There is an ʻOlelo Noʻeau that describes how one learns best:

Nana ka maka, ho’olohe ka pepeiao, pa’a ka waha.

Observe with the eyes, listen with the ears, don’t talk.

When I was in elementary school, in Maryland, maybe 3rd grade, the teacher assigned a social studies activity that involved making dwelling places from different cultures. I was assigned to make a model of an old Hawaiian home. The first thing that came to my mind was the collection of coconut cups my mom used for parties – usually to hold a drink called “Missionaryʻs Downfall”. My kid’s imagination envisioned using one of those coconut cups turned upside down, with a black painted door, and topped with a roof made from green construction paper. I’m sure I saw something like that in a cartoon. So that’s what I did. When I was finished my mom came into my room and asked me what I was making. I told her about the project and she complimented me on my effort, then left the room. She came back about an hour later with wood, straw, and chicken wire. Sitting in the middle of the room she spread out all of her materials and proceeded to teach me how to thatch a hale (house). We brought both little houses to school the next day. I think the teacher was irritated with my mom. She could clearly see that mom collaborated on the second house. But my mother saw this as a teachable moment. She wanted to show me something about the skills of my ancestors. Many years later, when my husband was building a doll house for our girls in the style of an Irish Cottage, I thatched the roof, recalling the lesson my mother taught me.

My mother danced kahiko and auana styles of hula, but was formed in the era of Hapa Haole Hula. One of her favorites was Don McDiarmidʻs “South Sea Sadie” – it was one of mine as well. My momʻs generation of hula dancers can be credited with keeping hula alive at a time when the Hawaiian language and culture where under attack. There were no hula halau. Mom had a hula studio first in Honolulu and later in Washington, D.C.

Recently a friend asked me to write about my mother’s work. I’ve been thinking a lot about that in the days leading up to Mother’s Day this year because my mom’s 9 to 5 career was executive secretary. She picked up stenography and short hand during WWII when she left high school in Wahiawa a year before graduation to go to secretarial school and work for the Army. She continued this line of work when she and Dad moved to Washington, D.C. where she worked at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and later, for Senator Hiram Fong, retiring after a stint with the Federal Parole Commission.

My mother and Senator Fong at Walter Reed Army Medical Center with a soldier from Hawaii who just underwent ear reconstruction surgery.

But my mom had a whole other professional life and in this she was a like the proverbial superhero who steps out of their pedestrian business uniform into a fantastical costume to fly off and save the world. And that was my mom’s real job. Off with the business suit, on with the sarong or holoku or grass skirt armed with a ukelele, ipu, flower lei, her voice and a life time of hula study, to bring Hawaiian culture to the metropolitan Washington area. And in doing this, she saved me in a way I would not understand until I was an adult.

Mom and muscians.

Observe with the eyes, listen with the ears, don’t talk.

My formative years were spent watching and listening to this extrodinary woman. Growing up in what we now call the Hawaiian diaspora, thousands of miles from the land of our ancestors, my mother forged a connection for me to the ‘aina, step by step, ‘uwehe by ‘uwehe – with each slap of the ipu. Listening to my mother I heard the stories of the creation of our islands, of our kings and queens. Participating in the pagents she created and the luau’s she chaired, riding the floats she helped to design, attending events with the cosmopolitan staff members of Hawaii’s congressional offices, she kept Hawaii nei alive for me. And as a woman armed with a certificate from a secretarial school, the mo’olelo and hula of her ancestors, and her own inner strength and perseverence, she showed me how to live a purposeful and generous life.

Images above clockwise, fixing the flower crown for the 1964 Cherry Blossom Princess Lamela Holt; Hawaii’s float for the Cherry Blossom Parade – Lani helped to design and build; Performing hula noho – seated hula. That’s me trying to ‘ami no doubt. Pagent depicting the queens of Hawaii for the Princess Kaiulani Ball, Washington, DC.

4 thoughts on “Makuahine (Mother)

  1. Deb, You are such a beautifully descriptive writer. Guess it is a bit easier when one is so proud of one’s history.



  2. Hi there Deb, these are treasured memories for you. So happy I can read about your beautiful and talented mom and your Hawaiian ancestry – Jean

    Liked by 1 person

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